Did you know that one of the main barriers to girls getting an education starts in the bathroom?
You read that right. Not a lot of people want to talk about it, but in much of the developing world, one of the top barriers to girls’ education is the lack of safe and separate latrines for girls and boys. In fact, in many areas it’s the number one cause of school absenteeism, ahead of malaria and other diseases. In the United States, being able to find a safe, private bathroom is something that most of us take for granted. But only 45% of schools in the least developed and low-income countries have adequate sanitation facilities.
How does a safe, private toilet influence girls’ education, you ask? Well, first it’s important to note that access to adequate sanitation facilities can influence the education of all children in the developing world. These facilities lead to improved sanitation and hygiene, which in turn, can reduce the number of water-born illnesses and diarrheal episodes that cause – among other devastating outcomes – school absenteeism. But adolescent girls are at greatest risk for being affected!
When a girl reaches puberty, access to a safe, private toilet can make a crucial difference in whether or not she continues her education. Girls need clean water to wash themselves or their menstrual cloths and a place to dispose of their menstrual pads if they are using them. If girls don’t have access to these facilities at school, they will often stay at home during their monthly periods. In fact, lack of safe, private toilets can cause girls to miss up to 20% of the school year. As one might imagine, irregular attendance can lead to lower grades and may, eventually, lead to dropping out of school altogether.
Also, believe it or not- gender segregated toilets that are located in convenient, safe locations at school can protect girls from violence and assault! Women and girls are often vulnerable to harassment or violence when they have to use shared toilets or are forced to go to the bathroom outside. In one survey of schoolgirls in South Africa, for example, more than 30% reported having been raped at school; often these incidences occurred in school toilets that were either shared or in an unsafe, isolated locations. Such violence is a major deterrent to school attendance, not to mention a girl’s self-esteem and desire to learn.
Finally, when girls don’t have access to a toilet at all, they’re forced to go outside. To retain some sense of privacy (and dignity), many girls will choose to ‘hold it’ or limit their consumption of food and drink to delay the need to relieve themselves. Not only can these actions increase the chance of urinary tract infections, but it also means that girls aren’t eating and drinking as they should, which can lead to dehydration and malnourishment.
In sum, there are already many reasons that put girls in much of the developing world at high risk for either dropping out of school or not going in the first place. But when schools have appropriate sanitation facilities, one of those obstacles is eliminated, and one more girl is empowered to make a difference!
- Jansz S, Wilbur J. Women and WASH: Water, sanitation and hygiene for women’s rights and gender equality. WaterAid Briefing. 2013. Available at: http://www.wateraid.org/us/google-search?query=girls+educatio&refinement=Publications
- Prinsloo, Sakkie, ‘Sexual Harassment and Violence in South African Schools’, South African Journal of Education, vol. 26, no. 2, 2006, pp. 305–318.
- UNICEF. Raising even more clean hands: Advancing health, learning and equity through WASH in schools.’ 2012. Available at: http://www.unicef.org/wash/schools/files/Raising_Even_More_Clean_Hands_Web_17_October_2012(1).pdf
- WaterAid. We can’t wait: A report on sanitation and hygiene for women and girls. 2014. Available at: www.wateraid.org/~/media/Publications/wecantwait.pdf